Friday, August 7, 2015

The Guinea Worm

Imagine, for a moment, that you one day have a shooting pain in your leg.  You start to develop some rather common but troubling symptoms such as a fever, a rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dizziness.  Maybe it's just the flu, you think.  Maybe it's something you ate.  Maybe bird flu finally got you, just like you were always afraid it would.

But then a blister develops.  Usually on your leg or foot.

You try to think of what could be causing this.  Was it that guy on the bus sneezing next to you while you rode to get your bagel?  That small child who was covered in sticky stuff that bumped into you at the mall?  Your coworker who showed up anyway despite coughing the whole day in the cubicle next to yours.  That bird.  That scruffy looking pigeon that followed you around the sidewalk and eyed you warily.  Surely, that bird had a hand in this.

What you don't know, and won't know until you finally give up and decide to soak your feet in a nearby pond while you walk your dog is that it's something much worse, much more terrifying...and something that, in another couple of years, nobody will ever need to worry about again.

I'm going a bit more "real" this time, by talking about the Guinea Worm, a parasite that has caused grief for too long across the world, and whose extinction is nigh.

Don't worry if you have a nervous stomach, I'm not posting any pictures of the worm.

The Guinea Worm is a parasite, a tiny creature that lays its eggs in water but lives inside (or attached to) the bodies of a host.  In this case, according to the Carter Center, it lives in humans.  Surprisingly, it only lives in humans.  It moves through the host's body, usually moving down to a leg or the foot, and it grows, eventually becoming two or more feet in length.

Once it matures and is ready to lay its eggs, it causes the symptoms I described above.  After that, a blister forms near where the "egg laying end" of the Guinea Worm is.  In most countries where the Guinea Worm thrived,t would not be uncommon for the host to move into a body of water (usually the same one their tribe would drink from) to cool themselves.  The Guinea Worm senses the temperature change, bursts out of the blister, and lays its young in the water.  Those young thrash around so they get consumed by tiny microscopic little water "fleas" which can then be swallowed by a person and the cycle continues.

Like this, but more horrible because it's real.
What's particularly scary is that you don't show any symptoms of having a worm in your body for one year after you're infected.  No rashes, no blisters, no weird wrinkles in your skin as a worm moves around, no sudden decisions to binge-watch Richard Scary stories because Lowly Worm suddenly feels like a really compelling character.  It's only after you've had a chance to return home after your vacation do you suddenly feel like you must have caught a horrible disease (and you have!).

Have you ever wondered why, in television show medical dramas, they ask if you've traveled anywhere exotic in the past year, maybe two?

This is why.

Here's the amazing thing.  In 1986, it's estimated that 3.5 million people around the world reported "Guinea Worm Disease" (essentially "the disease of having a Guinea Worm").  Three and a half million.  That's most of the city of Los Angeles walking around with worms in their body that year.  It was found worldwide, and generally agreed upon to be a blight on mankind.

The good news?  As of 2014, those numbers have dropped over 99%.

I know, you're thinking, "Erik, come on.  Over 99%?  Don't you just mean 100%?"

Nope, and stop questioning my math.  As of 2014 there were 126 cases in the world, located in only four countries.  That's a reduction of 99.999964 percent (rounded off, naturally).  It's not permanently gone yet, and they will have to keep watch to make sure no new cases happened a year since the last one, but the planet is pretty soon going to be able to chalk up another species as "extinct" and I, for one, couldn't be happier.

But wait, you're thinking, Erik, you're a tree hugging liberal who actually got something out of watching Captain Planet and the Planeteers other than "be glad your parents didn't name you something stupid, like Wheeler."  You love all animals, and you're silently hoping that the return of the passenger pigeon happens within your lifetime so that you can see one.  How can you be calling for the extinction of a living creature?

Well, in my eyes, there's a difference between the dodo, Texas wild rice, and tigers on one side, and the Guinea worm on the other, and that's us.  Humans.

See, without humanity around, the dodo wasn't going to go extinct any time soon.  If we hadn't put up the Spring Lake Dam, Texas wild rice would still be thriving, and would still be thriving if we just packed up and left the planet.  Tigers were doing just fine until we hunted them down and drove their numbers down, and, again, if we vanished, they could possibly come back.

If mankind became extinct tomorrow, however, the Guinea Worm would likely be the next species to go.  Remember, it only infects humans, so if we're gone, it's not suddenly going to decide to infect a rhinoceros, an elk, or some fish.  It's a thing that needs human hosts to survive, and it does so by causing sickness and disability in the host.  No, it's not cute, but there are plenty of "not cute" endangered species I hope survive.  Anything that requires a host and then harms that host, on the other hand?  I can't think of a single positive to keeping it alive.

In fact, nobody can think of a single positive to keeping it alive.  There's no (real) efforts to save it, and the only website that decries its extinction is a hoax.  There's no delicate balance of nature that will be disrupted if the Guinea Worm goes extinct.  There's nothing that feeds on the Guinea Worm that will suddenly starve to death.  All we'll be doing is keeping people around the world from getting horribly sick by a terrible creature ever again.

But wait, you say, how do we know it won't just come back?  After all, there are measles outbreaks in Disneyland, anti-vaccination movements have caused long-thought "never happen here" diseases to make reappearances across the world, and there are plague victims in Colorado!  Couldn't the Guinea Worm come back?

No.  No it can't.  Because it's not a virus, it's not a bacteria, it's not a microbe that can remain dormant.  It's not something we can keep in a tube in a lab and attempt to weaponize for a horror movie (so stop trying, SyFy Channel), we can't freeze it and thaw it later to have it run amok through civilization.  The Guinea Worm is too complex an organism to "come back" like that.  It feeds, it grows, it lays eggs.  If you freeze it and thaw it later, all you'll have is a dead worm.  If you dehydrate it and then attempt to pour water on it later, you'll have wet worm jerky.  When it's dead, it's dead.  Gone.  Finished.  This will be an ex-species.

So good riddance, Guinea Worm, and let's marvel at the fact that we live in a time period where we can actually say we're improving the lives of people around the world by actually eliminating diseases that used to affect entire civilizations and have been around since biblical times.

What's that?

Oh, well, it's believed by a lot of sources that the "fiery serpents" in Numbers 21:6 were actually guinea worms.  The symptoms would lead many people at the time to believe their limbs were burning, and Moses is told to solve the problem by winding the serpent around a stick, a way used to traditionally remove Guinea Worms from host bodies for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.  The blisters caused by the worms could easily have become infected in those days, leading many people to die.

So how's that? We're actually going to eradicate a real, honest to- um, let's start again.  We're actually going to eradicate a real, probable Biblical plague.

This is a pretty amazing time.

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